By Kiel Watson

A recent study by AccessLex has shown that more than half of recent law school graduates don’t believe their degree was worth getting. Due to a combination of dwindling employment prospects and rising tuition costs, those who have graduated with their J.D. (Juris Doctorate) since the recession in 2008 have experienced underemployment, debt, and in many cases regret at their choice of career.

This writer recently received an associates degree in paralegal studies at HFC, where the courses were taught almost exclusively by lawyers. When describing the job market that paralegals face in today’s economy one of the legal instructors dropped an unexpected piece of information. “When you apply for jobs, you aren’t competing against other paralegals. You’re competing for paralegal positions with lawyers.” The findings of the study seem to back up his statements.

The instructor went on to describe how during the recent recession many law firms downsized, terminating junior lawyers and leaving no openings for the new crop of law school graduates. Since the skill set required of paralegals and attorneys is so similar, many sought underemployment in that field.

In our culture, being a lawyer, like being a doctor, has long been considered one of the most desirable occupations. The study shows that to still be true; according to the results 9 out of 10 people still view a J.D. as a valuable degree. That number is even higher among law school graduates, but the answers start to change when the study looked at the grads from 2008 and later.

While law can still be a promising and lucrative career many of the things we imagine such as a high salary and job right from school are now reserved for the top handful of schools and those graduating towards the top of their class. The study found that less than half of grads since the recession had a job lined up before graduation, and 26% had to wait over a year to find a job.

Even for those who do find employment, unless they went to a top-ten school, may be surprised at their salary. According to U.S. News and Reports, the average starting salary for lawyers last year ranged from $52,000 per year (public sector) to $68,000 (private sector) per year.

While 68k per year isn’t bad, when you look at the cost of education things don’t add up. The least expensive law school option of an in-state public university carries an average price tag of $25,000 per year. When added to the average debt for a bachelor’s degree of $30,000, a new law school graduate could easily be over $100,000 in debt for college. Upon graduation a newly minted lawyer could find themself competing for a job with a paralegal who spent less than $7,000 on an associates degree.